UN gathering on non-communicable diseases considers ways to combat scourge

An unhealthy diet is one of the major risk factors for a range of chronic diseases linked to obesity. Photo: WHO

20 September 2011 – Delegates at a United Nations high-level conference on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) today considered strategies to combat the preventable, mostly lifestyle- and diet-related illnesses that have become major killers across the world.

Participants at the two-day meeting, hosted by the General Assembly, yesterday adopted a declaration calling for a multi-pronged campaign by governments, industry and civil society to set up by 2013 the plans needed to curb the risk factors behind the four groups of NCDs – cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.

Steps range from price and tax measures to reduce tobacco consumption to curbing the extensive marketing to children, particularly on television, of foods and beverages that are high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugars, or salt. Other measures seek to cut the harmful consumption of alcohol, promote overall healthy diets and increase physical activity.

The overall annual death toll from NCDs is estimated at 36 million worldwide, which means it comprises more than 60 per cent of the broader total of 57 million.

Mexico’s Health Minister, Salomon Certorivski Woldenberg, told the gathering today at UN Headquarters that the NCD scourge cut across borders, age group and social status, making them a major public health threat. Fourteen people in every 100 adults in Mexico had diabetes, and obesity and the incidence of heart disease continued to rise, he said, stressing the need to strengthen the preventive capacity of health ministries to deal with the problem.

Sierra Leone’s Health Minister, Zainab Hawa Bangura, said that her country had limited capacity to deal with NCDs, but told the conference that the Government had established a department address the problem by developing a national policy on non-communicable diseases. The country had also sought professional help from abroad to deal with the NCDs challenge.

According to Roberto Sabrino, Spain’s Vice Minister for Health, the promotion of lifestyles that stressed physical activity, a healthy diet, avoiding tobacco and reducing the use of alcohol were critical.

Speaking yesterday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the declaration on NCDs noted that over a quarter of all people who die from NCDs succumb in the prime of their lives, the vast majority of them in developing countries.

“Our collaboration is more than a public health necessity. Non-communicable diseases are a threat to development. NCDs hit the poor and vulnerable particularly hard, and drive them deeper into poverty,” he said, with millions of families pushed into poverty each year when a member becomes too weak to work or when the costs of medicines and treatments overwhelm the family budget.

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